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From a PhD to completing Ultraman Canada: Triathlete Anu Vaidyanathan's story

Shamita Harsh | Updated on: 2 July 2016, 9:59 IST

The run is my favorite part and by the time I started it, everyone else was ahead of me, except the one person I had passed. Just the night before, I had been reading about Emil Zatopek, a legendary runner called the 'locomotive', who grunted loudly as he ran, his head bouncing from side to side, an image of pain and suffering. Since I imagined that my overall struggle-fest on the run made me look like him, I had a conversation with him in my head with my long-dead, maybe-hero.

Emil Zatopek, in a voice like Denzel Washington's: 'I was a good runner, Anu. You may think you look like me, but you are just the friendly neighbourhood walrus into wheezes.'

Me: 'Running? Please! Try a tri-sometime. Besides, I am a water buffalo, not a wheezing walrus. Dude, you ever BEEN to India? Get your fauna right!'

-Excerpt from Anywhere But Home

She is a long-course triathlete, the first Indian to compete in the Ironman and the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada. Meet Anu Vaidyanathan (if you haven't already heard of her) through her journey to finding motivation, in her first novel, Anywhere But Home: Adventures in Endurance.

The two chief adventures in her life have been: A) The Ironman - 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycling leg and 26.2 mile marathon, and 2) the Ultraman - 6.2 mile swim, 261.4 mile cycle ride and 52.4 mile run. Her other expeditions have taken her to triathlons in New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia.

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Keeping it real

Anu writes about being your everyday geek with an unending thirst for knowledge and freedom. She then talks of those pesky aunts and misogynistic coaches who expected her to quit running and marry. Basically, all things relatable.

Anywhere But Home is perhaps a first of its kind sports novella that maps a triathlete's journey across countries in search of the right kind of turf to practice. From sneaking into swimming pools on private society properties to cycling before dawn in Bangalore without her father knowing of her whereabouts, Anu has more truancies to her name than you can imagine.

Seeking something beyond her reach, she is the example of breaking both social and sporting barriers. While societal norms advocated good academic records over any extra-curricular activities, Anu chose to ace both. She quit one Ph.D to look for answers. When she returned to Bangalore and began to train for her first ever Ironman, Anu did not know that she would be the first Indian to do so. Nor did she know that she would be taking up training in one of the most challenging sports in the world.

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In this capsule full of episodes of heart-break and disappointment, Anu spins her tale with wit and humility. She narrates every minuscule detail that became a part of her training routine; whether it was the neighborhood dogs that accompanied her on the streets like relay partners, or the unwanted lurkers that followed her in the wee hours of the morning.

Not at the cost of education

When her IIT-JEE dreams were crushed, scholarships took her overseas. Anu found herself alienated from popular culture during her stay in the Midwest. If getting a social life boiled down to following everybody's favourite sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S., she was more than happy to skip it. She was content with running and finding her own time in those hours of solace. Struggling to blend in, she still managed to find friends who painted an alternate picture of America to her, one where she could be as individualistic as she pleased to be.

An achiever to the core, Anu received her Ph.D in electrical engineering at UC Canterbury, where she holds the department and university record of completing a Ph.D in just twenty-six months.

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Today she continues to teach courses in innovation and business policy. Her academic life now traipses from giving TED Talks on inspiration, to her lectures on computer architecture and innovation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Anu writes about her goals and how she motivated herself to achieve them. As the youngest finisher of the Ultraman Canada (6th place) she is inspiration, more so for the physical pain she endured. Whether it was a ferried ride behind a Chinese woman farmer to reach a triathlon or the wardrobe faux pas she made unthinkingly, Anu Vaidyanathan takes you along her cycling, swimming and running adventures all in one book.

First published: 2 July 2016, 9:59 IST